WORTH THE RISK - CHAPTER ONE - Claudia Connor

WORTH THE RISK – CHAPTER ONE

9780553390926Hannah’s eyes burned and her head ached from the effort not to cry as she pulled into a parking spot at Foodland. At eight o’clock that morning she’d walked into the veterinarian’s office a dog owner. Three hours later she’d walked out . . . not.

She cut the engine, her forehead dropped to the steering wheel. She’d known Max wasn’t himself, that he might be sick, that eleven was old for a dog, especially a large shepherd mix. But she hadn’t expected to hear the words nothing we can do, or best thing for him.

Biting her lip against tears, she forced herself out and into a spring day so bright and beautiful she couldn’t decide if it was cheerful or a slap in the face.

She grabbed a cart and mentally planned her route, hitting produce first. Avocados, jalapeños, tomatoes. She searched her fuzzy brain for what else she needed for guacamole, her standard contribution when she went to her brother’s. Exactly where she did not want to go tonight. She didn’t want to watch the brothers who’d raised her tiptoeing around, giving one another worried looks, thinking they needed to fix it like they always did. They couldn’t fix this. A lot of things couldn’t be fixed.

Finished with that, she silently repeated the rest. Chips, bread, beer. Chips, bread, milk, beer. She added things and ticked them off as she went. But old habits were hard to break, and like a car on autopilot, she found herself in the dog food aisle.

All she saw were Max’s big eyes fixed on hers. Trusting her when she said it would be okay, not understanding the vet’s syringe was filled with enough anesthesia he’d never wake up. The lump in her throat swelled until she couldn’t swallow past it. Her nose burned and the bags in front of her blurred.

Just get the beer and go. She wheeled around and turned the corner of the next aisle.

She couldn’t handle a pity party tonight. Of course if she didn’t go, if she said she just wanted to hang out at home, they’d cancel the whole March Madness deal and insist on coming to her house. Her house, where a certain brown-eyed shepherd wouldn’t be waiting. An enormous weight settled on her chest.

Don’t cry. She scanned the beer case and swiped at her eyes. She wasn’t going to cry. She bit down on her bottom lip.

Damn it. She was. No wonder her brothers treated her like glass. Broken glass.

“Bad day?”

Hannah jerked at the deep voice beside her. Right beside her and way too close. Dark, tall, and wide, the man filled out his expensive-looking black suit like an athlete entering the stadium tunnel before a game.

“I’m fine.”

He angled his head, smiled, and her heart actually stumbled.

“You know, people usually cry in their beer after they drink it. Just saying.”

He continued to study her with soft brown eyes, and for the first time in a long time, she didn’t want to look away. But she did. And pulled the sides of the long-sleeved shirt she wore open over a tank top closer together. Because of the frigid air coming from the beer case, and because no matter what she had on, no matter how covered, she could never shake the feeling people could somehow see through to what lay beneath. “Well, I’m done now.”

He looked back to the case as well, but even from the side she could see a smirk pulling at his lips. “That’s good.”

She grabbed a six-pack of AmberBock, spun her buggy around, and headed to the front, feeling the stranger’s eyes burning her back the entire way.

Stephen McKinney watched her go, enjoying the way she moved in tan riding breeches that hugged her legs before they disappeared into tall, brown leather boots. He smiled, enjoying it a little longer. Golden-blond hair hung in a long, loose braid nearly to her waist. He had a flash of it tangled in his fingers, spread across silk sheets. Beautiful. And gone.

He loosened his tie and opened the top buttons of his dress shirt as he made his way through the express lane.

Still feeling a stab of disappointment, he exited alone. But the sun warmed him and, it seemed, blessed him, with extreme luck, because, as he stashed his items in the tiny trunk of his Porsche, he caught sight of Goldilocks pushing her cart straight toward him.

Grinning, he pretended to search his bags as she made a wide birth around him and stopped at the neighboring car—a black 4Runner that had seen better days. She rearranged some piles in the back, then stashed her groceries, not once looking at him.

While she delivered her cart to the holding pen, he closed his trunk and stepped around to lean against the side. He waited, watched, noting the deliberate way she walked. Tall and lean, though he still had a good six inches on her.

Still several feet away, she slowed, a touch of fight-or-flight in her eyes. She took a few more steps, maintaining a certain distance he felt compelled to close. But he stayed where he was, legs crossed in front of him, effectively blocking her way. “Have dinner with me.”

Golden eyes blinked up at him. Not the shade of the gold bars stacked inside the national reserve, more like the dark whiskey he’d drunk too much of not so long ago.

“What?”

“I’m asking you to dinner.”

She looked around again, seeming more concerned with the parking lot than with him. “Oh.”

Not exactly an answer and not the effect he usually had on women. “Stephen,” he said and offered his hand.

She hesitated so long, he thought she might leave him hanging. But finally, and with obvious reluctance, she slipped her small hand into his. He got a little buzz from the slide of her palm against his. He imagined the rest of her would be just as soft. “Your name?”

“Hannah.”

“So, Hannah,” he said, wanting to tug until she was flat up against him. “Will you please have dinner with me?”

“No.” She didn’t consider it for even a second and pulled her hand free.

“Ah.” He inclined his head toward her bags. “Chips. Beer. You have plans. Another night then.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Give me your number and I’ll call you.”

“Yes. I mean . . . no.”

“Not sure?” Now he was getting somewhere. She rolled her bottom lip between her teeth. If she was playing hard to get, he could play too. And he would win.

“I mean I can’t give you my number and yes, I have plans.”

She flicked her eyes toward her driver’s-side door.

Nervous? It was broad daylight and not like they were standing in a darkened alley, but he straightened, gave her a bit more space. Though there was no way he was about to leave things like this, just watch her drive away. Not when he was dying to touch her, brush back the wayward strands feathering around that gorgeous face.

“Maybe just a drink then. No pressure.”

Seconds ticked by and she bit at her lip again, making him think about biting it too. She seemed to weigh her options, possibly deciding which was the better offer. If he’d been interested before, now he was damned intrigued.

“I guess I could meet you somewhere.”

He cocked his head, resisted giving her the head-to-toe perusal he wanted to. “Is that the best deal I’m going to get?”

“It’s the only deal you’re going to get.”

In the second their eyes connected, he caught a touch of sass before she looked away. Cute. Very cute, on top of being very beautiful. “Okay. Reno’s.” If she was surprised at Norfolk’s exclusive, impossible-to-get-into restaurant, she didn’t show it. His phone rang and, without taking his eyes from hers, he slipped it out of his pocket. “Seven thirty?”

She gave a swift nod and escaped to her car.

As a businessman he knew compromise could often get you farther. And sometimes, he thought, sliding into the deep black leather, it was best to let your opponent think they’d won.

He brought the cell to his ear. “Hey, Adam, what’s up?” As he listened to the young intern he’d recently taken on, he watched Hannah leave the parking lot.

“So how should I reply?”

Stephen started his own car and pulled out. “You tell them the deal’s off. They want to sell more than we want to buy. That’s the point. Find out why they’re so eager and then we squeeze. Three to one he caves by midweek.” Which were better odds than his date showing up tonight.

“And that’s why you’re the shark.”

Stephen smiled at the young man’s enthusiasm. “I’ll be back in the office in twenty.” He ended the call and dropped his phone into the console, his mind more on a golden-haired angel than a major land acquisition. He had other acquisitions in mind.

His smile grew at the thought as he muscled into midday traffic and took the I-4 into downtown. Breast-hugging tank top he’d only gotten a peek of thanks to the shirt she wore over it. That shirt had also partially blocked his view of a very fine ass. Just the right curves in addition to a sinfully sexy mouth. And a single tear tracking down her cheek that had twisted something inside him. Not at all the kind of thing he liked.

He preferred happy and carefree, conceited and self-involved. All of which turned the spotlight on someone else and turned both parties away from matters of the heart. But he was a man who got what he wanted, and the longer he’d stood there beside her car, the more he’d wanted Hannah. Plus, she’d said no. That alone had sealed her fate.

Feeling triumphant, Stephen pulled up to his office located in one of Norfolk’s newest high-rises—his high-rise. All glass and sleek metal, the silver edges gleaming in the afternoon sun, the space between reflecting the clear blue sky.

Damn, he loved this building. And he should, he’d had a lot to do with the design. More than that, it had come at a time when he’d needed it most. His tangible proof that he’d made it through the nightmare that had almost destroyed him.

But it hadn’t. The glass building stood, breakable but surviving. And so was he.

He crossed the cool lobby, his dress shoes clicking against the smooth black marble, and keyed into his private elevator. He gave a smile and a nod to the young blonde manning the main desk as the doors closed, taking him swiftly to the top of his own company, Trace Development.

He strode down the hallway to his home away from home. He’d been gone longer than he’d planned, working hard for a date with an alluring woman who’d shown a hint of sadness.

He didn’t slow down as his admin got up from behind her desk. “You have six calls. Tanner and Associates and Robert Sinclair are the most pressing. You have a conference call with Mr. Jiāng at two.” She quick-stepped to keep pace with him. She had no choice.

Stephen smiled at his straightforward administrative assistant. In a black skirt and standard white blouse ruffling out at the top, she looked as formidable as ever. Her crisp voice and gray bob only added to her air of efficiency. “Thank you, Dee.”

First order of business was to cancel his prior commitment for the evening, easy enough. He sat at his desk and pulled up the number. He’d had a fun couple of weeks, but things between him and Nicole had run their course and they both knew it. She’d been the one to cancel last time. Women used him for his money and prestige. He used them for . . . some would say sex. He thought of it more as sleep aid without the pills.

Nightmare suppressers.

When that was done he dug into the Shanghai file, barely looking up when his partner, Dave Pietro, strode in. His tie was a blast of orange against a navy pinstripe. And that was Dave, from his three-thousand-dollar shoes to his slicked-back hair and shrewd black eyes. Dave’s favorite saying was “shock and awe.” More often than not, it was just shock. But he was sharp, and he enjoyed playing the political side, something Stephen had no patience for.

“Congratulations.” Dave waved a magazine, one he’d already seen.

Stephen McKinney, Norfolk’s Most Eligible Bachelor.

“You didn’t tell me.”

“I forgot.” Since making his first million in college and being dubbed the Stock Whisperer by Forbes, it was always something. He’d been recognized in Top Ten Young Professionals more times than he could count. One article had even called him a young Donald Drumpf. That one he appreciated, as he had great respect for the man.

He’d strategized, negotiated, and outsmarted, gaining power and leverage with surprising speed. But it was the bigger, more recent, risks that had gotten him farther, faster. It wasn’t hard to risk everything when you had nothing to lose. Nothing to live for.

“So, how many women did you have to screw to get that Most Eligible status?”

“I don’t know,” Stephen answered dryly, thinking Dave actually sounded jealous. “I didn’t count.”

“Well, either I’m not screwing enough or not the right ones. Better up my game.”

Stephen looked up just in time to see Dave cover his tone with a smile as he passed him a file.

“New property. I want it.”

Always with the new deals, the quick and easy profit. Stephen wasn’t against quick money, but he held majority in Trace, and small projects offered little challenge, in addition to wasting time. While Dave went on about an empty stretch of land and the commercial opportunities, Stephen’s mind wandered to a real challenge.

Hannah. The name suited her somehow. Soft and earthy. Full lips and a mouth he could spend hours exploring. He was well aware he might never see her again.

It wasn’t at all like him to care.

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